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Taking the Plunge at Atlantis

The crowds probably explain why the hotel's staff, while cordial, was rarely personable. Jeremie Debomy, down from Miami with his wife for a few days, didn't mask his disappointment. "The service was not really what I expected. . . . The staff seemed so nonchalant," he said. "It was okay, but I doubt I'll be back."

Others differed. Ellen Elson, a Pittsburgh business executive, was pleased. "Having a place with so many things to do is perfect," she said. "We can drop the 4-year-old off at the Discovery Camp for the day. Our teenager can glide down as many slides as he wants. And we can hang at the pool."

The Royal Towers is the most popular of Atlantis's three complexes. (Macduff Everton)

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Pool? I counted eight, including an oversize option for families, a lap pool for serious swimmers and a more intimate spot for couples. I couldn't resist the Leap of Faith, a 60-foot vertical jump down the Mayan Temple, a faux ruin constructed around a lagoon. Listening at once to the roar of the crowd and my heartbeat, I shot down through a shark-filled body of water (walled off from swimmers with plastic) into a refreshing pool.

The centerpiece of the waterworks is the Dig, a maze of passageways decorated with faux relics -- oversize tablets covered with hieroglyphics, "ancient" coral-covered pillars and so on -- centered on an aquarium. The pools and lagoons are such a thrill, though, it's easy to forget that the ocean is just a few yards away, behind the dunes rimming the property.

That would be a mistake: The two beaches here rank with the best in the Caribbean.

Cove Beach, a quiet haven covered with white sand and protected by palms, is geared toward those seeking a romantic escape. During my visit, a lone couple was there, complacently lounging on beach chairs.

"I've traveled all over the Caribbean, and this is the softest sand I have found anywhere," said Delores, a young blonde taking a walk.

The buzz was at nearby Atlantis Beach, which stretches along the resort's edge. With the water temperature hovering in the low 70s, no one dared brave the ocean (a staff member told me the locals also shy away from the surf between December and March). Still, dozens of sunbathers were sprawled on chairs and towels. Vendors strutted along, offering Cuban cigars, massages or hair braiding, while paddle boats, banana boats and parasails sat at the ready. The mood was festive and more welcoming than similar scenes I'd seen in Jamaica or other islands.

Dinner at Villa D'Este, a white-tablecloth restaurant specializing in northern Italian cuisine, was less memorable. A white bean soup lacked the rich flavor the dish has in almost any Tuscan restaurant, while the grilled lamb chops with mushrooms were spectacular. That mixed report, it turned out, was par for the resort's eating experiences. Whether it was breakfast at Murray's deli, a buffet meal at Marketplace or a splurge at the upscale Five Twins, all featured a melange of superb dishes . . . and standard hotel fare.

The exception was Dune, a beachfront restaurant serving up various specialties of celeb chef Jean-George Vongerichten; every bite was tasty. Still, those seeking a gourmet eating holiday in the islands might be better off at someplace like Anguilla's Cap Jaluca. The Atlantis casino, just off the Royal Towers, features more of the complex's over-the-top decor, highlighted by gargantuan handmade chandeliers and posh bars. In the evening, shorts and sneakers are replaced by more chic attire, and the resort takes on a decidedly elegant air.

A novice at table games, I attended a complimentary class offered by Erica, a quick-witted pro employed by the hotel. As an eager group of six watched, she ran though the basics of blackjack, Caribbean stud poker, roulette and a few other games. An hour later, I was flying solo at a blackjack table. But after I grabbed the cards and offered the wrong hand signals, another player shot me a glance.

"Listen, kiddo," Barbara, a fortysomething New Yorker and self-described card expert, said with a wry smile. "From now on, watch what I do. If you have questions, ask." From then on, Barbara and I took on the tables. A game of blackjack here, a little roulette there. An hour later, minus $50, I bade Barbara and the casino adieu.

Other nighttime entertainment options were limited. I'd already seen "The Forgotten" and the other films showing in the cinema, and I decided against shelling out $20 to hear two comedians I didn't know in the comedy club. I ended up following a group of revelers to Dragons, a pulsing nightclub with an attractive bar and lights flashing across the dance floor. With the right crowd, this could have been fun. But as I sipped my martini and looked around, I could count only about a dozen patrons, mostly middle-aged New York types waiting for the party to start. Michael Jackson was blaring through the speakers, asking us if we could feel it.

The answer seemed too easy.

A bigger question is what Atlantis is doing to keep abreast of changing vacation trends. One answer sits in front of the resort's main complex, across from a marina. There, development is underway on two new wings, including a 600-room all-suites hotel and a 400-room property of low-rise condos. The expansion is designed to respond to the new consumer interest in buying getaways with access to the amenities of luxury hotels.

Following the trend in Las Vegas and other resort spots to include big-name dining options, Atlantis is adding four restaurants (including Cafe Martinique, guided by Vongerichten, and Nobu, a Japanese eatery to be run by chef Nobu Matsuhisa). The expansions, to be completed by the end of 2006, would boost rooms to more than 3,000 -- and the thought dampened my interest in a return visit.

Before heading home, I took a final tour. A long line was forming for lunch at the Marketplace. The wait for an espresso at Plato's was 15 minutes. At the front desk, a clerk was telling a caller that every weekend for the next three months was booked solid. As it enters an 11th year, for many vacationers, Atlantis's formula seems to be working just fine. But for travelers seeking the best creature comforts at any cost, other luxury island resorts probably make for a more satisfying vacation.

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